Restrictions devalue Olympics

Lebron James of the United States dunks over Spain's Sergio Llull during the gold medal game at the London Olympics. For basketball, the Games have been a tremendous showcase.-AP

The likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps enrich the Olympics, and are, in turn, enriched by them. Such visible, iconic athletes are what help attract kids to sport; they are what help sports grow. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

After almost two months of impassioned public criticism and debate, it emerged last fortnight that the men’s basketball competition at the 2016 Olympics was unlikely to have an age cap after all. “It would probably be premature right now,” the FIBA secretary-general Patrick Baumann told reporters before the women’s final. “Large parts of the world benefit from this tournament for our sport, and I think we should keep this certainly for a while.”

The relief, while not permanent was huge, putting to bed fears that the men’s final at London was going to be the last opportunity to watch the NBA’s biggest stars at the Games. The hand-wringing had begun in June, when at the NBA finals commissioner David Stern dropped a long-circulated bombshell: he would like the Olympic competition to be limited to under-23 players. There was acceptance in some quarters, but unalloyed derision in others. “Stupid”, Kobe Bryant called the idea. Tyson Chandler felt it was “absolutely ridiculous”.

And on the evidence of the interest this time in London, it would seem they’re right (you wouldn’t want to disagree with Chandler anyway). Tickets were in great demand, while media interest was dizzying — at USA games, even the press overflow area was full. Stern and the NBA’s motives, though, are purely financial (franchise owners, concerned over injury to their million-dollar players, are also on board). A re-branded World Cup in association with FIBA is on the anvil, and while the NBA earns nothing from the Olympics, a tournament like that could mean a windfall. They appear to have forgotten, sadly, that the NBA’s global status today owes a lot to the Olympics. After FIBA allowed NBA players to compete for the first time in 1992, America’s Dream Team swept the world off its feet. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone et al — the whole package marketed awfully well — inspired a generation of young basketball players across the world on their way to the gold medal.

“It was pretty special,” the Spain and LA Lakers superstar Pao Gasol recounted on BBC Radio Five Live. “The Dream Team created a great impression; it was inspirational to a lot of kids around Europe and the world; it made a lot of kids want to play the sport and compete in the NBA. I think it did.”(change the face of global basketball)

It is not only the Olympics and international basketball that have gained from the league’s participation; the benefit has been completely mutual. At London, nearly every team has one or more players in the NBA (the total number is over 80). With these players have arrived new markets for the product — the NBA finals were broadcast to 215 countries in some 47 languages, according to the league’s own website. For basketball, the Olympic Games have been a tremendous showcase.

Which is why the idea of an under-23 tournament is distressing. The Olympics are supposed to feature the best of every sport; such restrictions devalue them. It was why the Games gradually allowed professionals to compete. The IOC woke up, after years of misplaced idealism, to the fact that the best in the world could not afford to be a bunch of moonlighters (and that many athletes were, for all practical purposes, professionals).

The likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps enrich the Olympics, and are, in turn, enriched by them. Such visible, iconic athletes are what help attract kids to sport; they are what help sports grow.

It may be that some events — football and tennis for example, where the World Cup or Wimbledon may matter more than a gold medal — have perhaps grown too big to be accommodated in their full glory at the Olympics. In that case, persisting with them is disrespectful, both to the spirit of the Games and to athletes from other disciplines that battle with the world’s best for a medal.

True Mexico’s gold at Wembley is a big deal back home, and there is no doubting the commitment of the finalists, but the men’s football event is simply an age-group tournament (FIFA restricted the men’s competition to under-23s — with three overage players — because it did not wish for an erosion of the World Cup ‘brand’). Only a couple of hours later in the Olympic Park, Jamaica’s brilliant sprinters were destroying the men’s 4x100 relay world record. The contrast is hard to miss.

Over at the boxing, the tale is a similarly disappointing one. The Olympic version of the sport has become sadly underwhelming, in some cases a mere stop-over en route to a professional career. The amateur format has left competitors, let alone viewers, raging. “Olympic boxing is not boxing; it is tag,” Trinidad & Tobago’s Carlos Suarez fumed after his defeat to Turkey’s Ferhat Pehlivan in the Round of 32. “Those aren’t punches; I didn’t feel none of them. This guy’s falling over ten times in the fight, but I get a point taken away.” There’s little doubt the crowd at the ExCel Arena would rather have cheered Amir Khan on than see him cheer with them, from his ringside seat next to the Prime Minister. His chance, alas, has come and gone.

In America, those in favour of sending an under-23 basketball side (it would still be no mean unit; Durant, Westbrook and Harden featured in the NBA finals, and would all be eligible this time) to the Games argue that the NBA’s celebrities don’t really care about the Olympics, and it is their half-hearted participation that actually devalues the event.

But that decision should not be the public’s to make. It should be, as Kobe Bryant said, the player’s choice alone. Besides, as he and many of his millionaire NBA colleagues have repeatedly insisted, they all wanted to be in London.

“Whether they happen to be 35 or 37 or 27 or 19,” Larry Probst, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, told the Associated Press, “I’d like to see us field the very best team that we can put on the court. And I’d like to see them play the very best teams from other countries.”

This time, Bryant and his celebrated colleagues fulfilled their gold medal destiny (yet again), prevailing in a corker of a final with Spain. And it was not as though the Americans were advantaged in some way and strolled through the competition: Lithuania and Spain — both well-represented in the NBA — ran them close, only the best team in the world won.